EAGAN, Minn. — Kirk Cousins corralled the shotgun snap, took a few steps back and let the pigskin fly.
The quarterback’s pass connected with Stefon Diggs more than 60 yards down the field in Green Bay, the pair hitting on a 75-yard score midway through the fourth quarter in Week 2 of the 2018 season.
At the time, the Vikings trailed their biggest rival by nine points at Lambeau Field. But the quick strike helped spark an impressive fourth-quarter comeback. The teams eventually played to a 29-29 tie.
The 75-yard touchdown was Minnesota’s longest play in 2018, a season that turned out to be a frustrating 8-7-1 campaign that kept the Vikings from making the playoffs.
As eyes turn toward training camp, which kicks off next week, the Vikings want to get the bitter taste from last year out of their mouths.
And if Minnesota wants to get back in the postseason dance, the Vikings could use a greater number of explosive plays.
“We need more of that. I think what you see, if you do study our offense, is the potential to have those plays is there,” Cousins said. “We can do it. You saw it against the Rams, you saw it against the Packers. Unfortunately, we didn’t continue to do it at a consistent rate all season long, and I think that’s what set our offense back.
“It’s difficult to keep trudging along and converting third-and-medium over and over and over again to try and come away with points. Sometimes, you need to get those big ones,” Cousins added. “With the speed and talent that Adam [Thielen] and Stefon have on the outside, and with some of the creative play-calling we’ll have from [Vikings Offensive Coordinator] Kevin [Stefanski], I like to think we’ll be able to generate a few more of those types of plays. If we do, I think that’s where the offense will start to turn a corner and take off to a new level.”
The Vikings categorize explosive passing plays as those that hit for 20 yards or more. Minnesota had 46 of them in 2018, Cousins’ first season in Purple.
The Vikings had the most success through the air against Green Bay, as 13 explosive plays came in the two Border Battles. Minnesota had seven in Green Bay (including four in the fourth quarter and overtime), and six in a Week 12 home win at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings also had five explosive plays in a shootout loss to the Rams, but there were other times where they dried up. In four total losses to the Bears, Patriots and Seahawks in the final seven weeks of the season, Minnesota cobbled together just five total pass plays of 20-plus yards.
Here is a detailed breakdown of Minnesota’s explosive plays in 2018:
In Wins: 24
In Losses: 15
In a tie: 7
At Home: 19
On the Road: 27
Games 1-8: 27
Games 9-16: 19
Of the 46 explosive plays, Thielen led the way with 17 of them, and Diggs had 13. Tight end Kyle Rudolph had six, running back Dalvin Cook tacked on four and tight end Tyler Conklin added a pair.
While it was no surprise that Thielen and Diggs racked up big plays in bunches, Cousins said he has hope that another player can get close to double-digit explosive plays in 2019.
“It will be very important for us as a unit to find who that third guy is. It’s pretty clear that Adam and Stefon are 1A and 1B, in no particular order,” Cousins said. “What’s been interesting, and what will be a big part of [training camp], is finding out, ‘Who’s that next guy?’
“That might be a tight end, it might be a running back … but whoever that guy is, in the passing game, let’s find that guy and create plays to give them an opportunity,” Cousins added. “Quite honestly, that will take some pressure off Adam and Stef’ and will give them an opportunity to shine, too.”
Perhaps some new and unproven names could help jump-start the offensive attack.
Chad Beebe, Jordan Taylor and Dillon Mitchell are all wide receivers looking to make a name for themselves.
And rookie tight end Irv Smith, Jr., a second-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft out of Alabama, could also provide a boost in the passing game.
View exclusive images shot by the Vikings team photographers from the Vikings-Packers game on Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Of Smith’s 58 total catches over the past two seasons with the Crimson Tide, he tallied 14 explosive plays, including three touchdowns.
“It takes a long time to go down the field if you’re just getting three yards, four yards, five yards,” Smith said. “If you take a big chunk, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense and gives the offense a lot of momentum.”
“Whenever I get the ball, I try not to go down and do whatever I can to score,” Smith added.
Thielen, for one, said he’d prefer the big plays to come in the first half. The All-Pro’s formula was as follows: create big plays early, allow Minnesota’s stingy defense to go to work and control the game the rest of the way for a win.
“Explosive plays lead to points,” Thielen said. “In this league, the more points we can put up — especially when you have a defense like the way ours is set up — it means they can rush the passer and you can really get after teams when [our offense] has explosive plays that lead to points.
“The more points you can put up early in a game, the better chance you give your defense to just go after the quarterback and play from ahead,” Thielen added.
The lack of consistently yielding explosive plays certainly weighed on Cousins’ mind after the season, as it was his immediate answer to the second question asked to him when he returned to Minnesota for the voluntary offseason program in April.
When probed about his takeaways from the 2018 season, Cousins explained the need for a higher frequency of big chunks through the air.
“I think when I look back at it, I think the big piece of the game, of my game that I looked at, there was a lack of explosive plays. I don’t think it was – you can look at any other metric, and they were pretty good,” said Cousins, who set a career-high with 30 touchdown passes and also had a career-low 10 interceptions as a full-season starter. “I think it was a lack of explosive plays, [which led to] lower yards per attempt. If you look at other years that I’ve had, the yards per attempt has been higher, and the reason it’s been higher is because there’s been more explosive plays.
“Explosive plays are a critical stat to winning football games, and I think if I could look to something at the end of 2019, I think if the other metrics are all there like they were last year, but then the explosive plays are higher, [and] as a result, the yards per attempt are higher, I think that will be a very telling thing,” Cousins added. “I think we can be a lot better on third down, but I also think when you have explosive plays, you stay out of third down and give yourself a chance to score on first or second down without having to continually convert.
“Because odds are, eventually on third down, you can keep having to do it over and over … and you’re not going to convert,” Cousins continued. “So if you’re asking how I evaluate last year, that’s just one thing that stands out to me. That if we can get that shored up, I think the results will follow.”
Cousins isn’t wrong about the lack of explosive plays hurting his yards per attempt figure. For comparison’s sake, Vikings.com looked back at the quarterback’s 2016 season alongside his 2018 campaign. Oddly enough, Cousins attempted the same number of passes in each season, and each team also went 8-7-1.
Cousins in 2016: 406 of 606 (67%) for 4,917 yards with 25 TDs and 12 INTs — 8.1 yards per attempt
Cousins in 2018: 426 of 606 (70.1%) for 4,298 yards with 30 TDs and 10 INTs — 7.1 yards per attempt
A glance at the numbers shows Cousins completed a higher percentage of his passes in 2018, but threw for 619 less yards despite completing 20 more passes.
Why? Because in 2016 with Washington, he connected on a whopping 72 explosive plays, compared to the 46 with the Vikings in 2018.
The Vikings offense will have a different look to it in 2019, as Stefanski is in his first full season as the offensive coordinator after being in that interim role for the final three games of 2018.
Minnesota also added Gary Kubiak as the team’s assistant head coach/offensive advisor.
The Vikings return a pair of 100-catch, 1,000-yard receivers in Thielen and Diggs, a veteran tight end in Rudolph and a promising young tight end in Smith, plus Cook, who has shown to be a playmaker when healthy.
Time will tell if Minnesota’s offense can string together explosive plays throughout the season. If they can, the consistency of yielding big plays could correlate with a return to the playoffs for the Vikings.
“Good defenses don’t really allow explosive plays, and when you can’t get them it makes it hard,” Cousins said. “When you have a bunch, it shows you were really able to control the game.
“If you look at a lot of our wins last year, we had a few of them sprinkled throughout the game,” Cousins added. “And in a lot of our losses, we couldn’t find one to save our life. Those take a lot of pressure off of a play caller and a quarterback when you can find those plays in the pass game.”